Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down to speak with Ross McKegney, founder and CEO of Verold, a startup participating in the Pearson Catalyst accelerator, for a behind the scenes look at what it's like to partner with Pearson.
John Pryor: So, what is Verold and how did the idea come about?
Ross McKegney: The name Verold means “World” and the original vision of the company was to become the next virtual worlds platform. We had an amazing team and great technology, but when WebGL came on the scene we saw a bigger opportunity and went for it. We pivoted the company away from virtual worlds and towards 3D technology to reshape the future of content on the web.
Today, Verold is a publishing platform for 3D content on the web. We help marketing agencies and educational software producers deliver highly engaging content on the web, without plugins or any software to download. Our technology has been used in marketing campaigns by Amazon and Hallmark, among others. And most recently, we’ve been working with Pearson Education through the Catalyst program to deliver highly engaging learning content.
JP: Talk to us about the early days of the company, prior to Catalyst. How difficult was it to go from idea to MVP to version one of the product?
RM: The pivot I just spoke about happened almost three years ago, and we’re just now getting to our MVP! That sounds crazy, but this is a huge project. For the team, we see exactly where we’re headed and are aggressively working toward it. For investors, it’s a bit more challenging. They had to trust me that the browsers will all support what we’re building (their trust was well placed, now they all do!) and that we’re going to be able to get an install base with some of the biggest players in content development (I’m working on it!). That was probably the biggest challenge, finding investors with the vision and patience to see this through.
JP: How did you hear about the Pearson Catalyst accelerator, and why did you think it would be a good idea to work with a corporate accelerator?
RM: I heard about the Pearson Catalyst program through our advisors at MaRS in Toronto. Education is where I see 3D on the web taking off first. It’s where the need for highly engaging web content is most acute. I don’t come from an edtech background, so I had to learn quickly, and what better way than working with the biggest edtech provider! I think we both saw the synergy immediately - that we have amazing technology that can help them revitalize their incredible content.
JP: How is Catalyst structured from a programming perspective? Do you have weekly milestones? Is it broken down into stages or is it a more “hands off approach”?
RM: Each Catalyst participant is given a challenge to solve over the course of the program. Ours is to revitalize the My Virtual Child online learning program. MVC is currently implemented in Flash, and our goal is to prototype a version using web technologies that will be accessible on the devices that students carry around today (desktops, laptops, tablets, phones), and that has a higher degree of engagement and interactivity. We have bi-weekly checkins with our advisors at Pearson, who’ve not only given us guidance on the project, but also helped us design the efficacy framework assessing our prototype. They’re also extremely supportive in making connections within the broader organization to help us maximize impact.
JP: Catalyst is virtual and doesn’t take equity. How did that affect your decision to participate? What are your thoughts on the equity vs. no equity debate for corporate accelerators?
RM: I think both options have their place. Equity gives a strong signal that this is a capability that you may one day want in house, and that you’re willing to make an investment even if others won’t. No equity says that this startup is solving a real problem that you have today, and that you want to be an early client and shape the direction of the offering. For us, the Catalyst approach with no equity was ideal. We already had an amazing group of investors, and what we really needed was early clients.
JP: You recently announced you raised $1.6 million in funding. Did Catalyst or Pearson help with this? Do you think that being a Catalyst participant helped in any way?
RM: Being part of Catalyst absolutely helped in the process. To be able to show investors that we’re building technology for the education space and to have one of the biggest educational technology companies as a beachhead client, it gives a tremendous amount of credibility.
JP: What is your favorite thing about Catalyst and the biggest thing you've learned so far?
RM: The whole process has been a great learning experience. Getting access to senior executives, visibility into strategic priorities and how we can help - all of that really helps me shape our development process and priorities. I think the biggest learning is just how important efficacy measurement has become in the edtech space. Everything sold into a school system today has to be proven effective, whether it’s a textbook or an online course. This bodes extremely well for us, given that interactivity and engagement has been demonstrated to drive efficacy!
JP: You have a background in corporate innovation yourself. What would your advice be to other corporations that are looking to partner with startups?
RM: I do. Both from my time at IBM and from my last company, Moso, a learning platform that provided senior executives with a design toolkit to help them grow their business. The best advice is just to be aware that startups move more quickly because they have to. We have a runway. We’re trying to find our business before the clock runs out. Be upfront about what success means to you and your timeline to get something done together. Pearson has been very good with that.
JP: Verold isn’t just an education product - you have clients in all sorts of different industries. Which industries or companies have you found to be most interested in using your technology?
RM: Our mission is to bring interactive 3D to the web, and this cuts across industries. Pretty much anyone using video on the web today could be using Verold in the near future as a way to deliver their message in an even more engaging way. We’ve had solid traction in content marketing and education, and for now we’re going to stay focused on those two areas. Longer term, there are opportunities in data visualization, architecture, product design, and many other domains. There are also many complementary areas that we’re watching closely. We’re active in the maker community and using our platform in conjunction with 3D scanning and 3D printing solutions, and in the VR space there’s going to ultimately be a huge play for the web, and we’re looking forward to being a major player there.
JP: The Catalyst startups usually base themselves at RocketSpace when they’re in San Francisco. When can we expect to see you on campus?
RM: I’ll be back down there in about two weeks. I love the space and look forward to hanging out there again next time!
JP: What's coming up for Verold in the short and medium term?
RM: We’re just in the process of rolling out a suite of features to help teachers make their own course materials using the Verold platform. It’s an ongoing project, but the first release will be out by the end of the year.
JP: Any final thoughts or comments for our readers?
RM: On the web, bleeding edge becomes mainstream in a relatively short time. And in our case, we’re providing creative teams with tools to make the kind of experiences that our audiences have grown accustomed to on their iPads and other touch devices. For companies like Pearson, who produce a lot of content and need to be ready for changing trends in consumption, we’re your perfect strategic partner.
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